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Fire season begins on Flathead Reservation

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 FLATHEAD RESERVATION – The local fire season is a bit late this year, but it managed to spark in late July amidst a global pandemic.

“It was predicted that we would have an above normal fire season, but it’s late this year,” said C.T. Camel, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Division of Fire fire management specialist. “Conditions turned hot and dry and lightning and human activity started the fires.”

A fire located eight miles west of Dixon is the biggest fire of the season – so far. As of Monday, Aug. 3, the Magpie Rock fire had burned 3,539 acres, according to the CSKT Division of Fire, with 330 people working the scene. The fire was reported at 12 a.m. on Monday, July 27, and was caused by lightning.  

The Magpie Rock fire quickly grew from an initial 100 acres in thick, dry wilderness to and expansive blaze as temperatures reached into the triple digits during the week.  

Within three days of igniting, the fire was at 2,500 acres and zero percent contained. 

“We are working in steep, rocky terrain with dense brush,” Camel said. “Safety is a big concern. There is also a lot of smoke and dust. We are having trucks keep their headlights on so they can be seen.”

On Sunday, fire officials reported that burnout operations were a success and the fire was 39 percent contained. The fire burned through the dry terrain during the week, and despite extensive efforts, was zero percent contained during the week. 

“The hot, dry weather and low relative humidity, along with dry fuel, continue to challenge firefighters,” Camel said. “Firefighters will evaluate opportunities to continue to engage the fire safely as weather, terrain and the fire permits.”

Fire suppression efforts included aerial burnout operations with a type three helicopter. 

“All divisions will continue to mop up the fire’s edge where they can do so safely and effectively,” he said.

As of Sunday, evacuations were not in place and structures were not threatened. “There are structures adjacent to the fire in Division Zulu with light fuels that have already burned,” he said. “Dixon Rural Fire Department is stationed at the home. Local firefighters made defensible space on the structure. When the fire first started, the structures were threatened because of the fuels the homes were in, but the threat has been eliminated.”  

Roads were closed in the area to reduce the risk to firefighters and the public at the D-6000 road, which is located between Revais and Magpie. Magpie D-5000 was also closed. 

On Friday, July 31, when the fire was zero percent contained, firefighters strengthened and extended fire lines on the northwest flanks. The fire was at 3,100 acres. “The fire continued to consume small pockets of unburned trees and vegetation inside the perimeter. Aircraft continued to play a critical role in firefighting efforts due to steep and inaccessible terrain. Helicopters dropped water to cool hot spots, slowing the fire’s growth and providing safer conditions for firefighters constructing the fire line.”

Another fire burned during the week in the Polson area. The Horseshoe Fire was first reported at 1:54 p.m. on Tuesday, July 28. The fire was located 10-miles southeast of town. It burned in a Ponderosa pine and juniper stand along the banks of the Flathead Lake. On July 30, the fire had burned 140 acres and was 20 percent contained.

“It was caused by an unattended campfire,” Camel said. 

With his skills as a fire investigator, Camel looked over the scene where the fire started. He said it was evident that people started the campfire and dumped water on it before they left, which was determined by the thin layer of crust at the fire’s origin. The fire was still hot underneath the water level when the people left it.

“They didn’t stir it up to make sure it was completely out,” he said.

Three type six engines and one 20-man type two initial attack crew were sent to the scene to fight the blaze. Forty-nine personnel were assigned to the fire.

The fire burned within the interior of the fire line with single trees being torched by the blaze. Three helicopters did bucket work on the hotspots. Crews planned to continue to mop up hotspots and use aviation resources where needed.

As of Sunday, no evacuations were in place and no structures were threatened. Roads in the area were also open.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a health update concerning wildfire smoke and COVID-19. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is overlapping with the occurrence of wildfires in the United States,” the CDC said. “Exposure to air pollutants in the wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, like COVID-19. Recent scientific publications suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.”

The CDC states that populations at most risk include, children less than 18 years; adults 65 years or older; pregnant women; people with chronic health conditions, including heart or lung disease; outdoor workers; and people with low socioeconomic status, including people who are homeless or with limited medical care.

During the pandemic, the CDC recommends that people reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke by seeking cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces. 

“While social distancing guidelines are in place, finding cleaner air might be challenging if public facilities such as libraries, community centers and shopping malls are closed or have limited capacity,” the CDC states. 

It is recommended that people create a cleaner air space at home to protect against wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic by using a portable air cleaner, air conditioners, fans and widow shades. Outdoor exercise when it is smoky should be limited.  

Camel said firefighters are following social distancing guidelines and wearing personal protective equipment to help prevent COVID-19. 

Camel asks the public to help reduce the amount of human-caused fires by making sure that campfires are completely out. People who smoke should not throw cigarettes out the window. He also asks that people not drive on tall dry grass and stay on roads.

“We don’t have any restrictions yet, but we might need them if people don’t follow guidelines.” 


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